Massachusetts One Step Closer to Legalizing Physician-Assisted Suicide

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A doctor and patient discuss end-of-life options
Source: “How to Die in Oregon,”, Feb. 3, 2011

Massachusetts voters may vote on Nov. 6, 2012 to become the fourth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide, along with Washington, Oregon, and Montana.

On Dec. 7, 2011, Dignity 2012, a coalition of citizens supporting the Death with Dignity Act, submitted 79,626 certified signatures to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, in excess of the 68,911 signatures required to place an initiative on the state ballot.

Massachusetts has an indirect initiative process, which means that all ballot initiatives must pass through the state legislature. The Death With Dignity Act was introduced into in the Massachusetts House of Representatives on Jan. 17, 2012 and referred to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. If the Massachusetts state legislature does not pass the initiative as written by May 1, the campaign would need to gather 11,485 certified signatures between May 1 and July 3 to be considered for the Nov. 6 ballot. Voters who signed the petition during the first signature gathering phase cannot sign the second petition.

According to the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General, the Act would allow terminally-ill adults with six months or less to live to receive and self-administer a prescription for life-ending medication. To qualify, a patient would have to be an adult resident of Massachusetts who is “medically determined to be mentally capable of making and communicating health care decisions; has been diagnosed by attending and consult physicians as having an incurable, irreversible disease that will, within reasonable medical judgment, cause death within six months; and voluntarily expresses a wish to die and has made an informed decision.”

Doctors would be required to inform patients about other end-of-life care options, including palliative care, pain management, and hospice care. Two physicians must verify the mental competence of the terminally ill patient and the voluntary nature of the request, and three requests must be made by the patient for the prescription: two oral and one written. The Act would also allow the patient to change his or her mind at any time. No person would be civilly or criminally liable or subject to professional discipline for actions that comply with the law.

“We’ve received an overwhelmingly positive response from people across Massachusetts who believe terminally ill patients deserve greater control over their end-of-life care,” said Michael Clarke, campaign director for Dignity 2012. “These decisions are deeply intimate and personal, and belong in the hands of individuals, not the government.”

The Roman Catholic Bishops of Massachusetts came out strongly against the proposed Death with Dignity Act, saying that it “effectively authorizes the killing of human beings prior to their natural death,” and that “a compassionate society should work to prevent suicide, which is always a terrible tragedy, no matter what form it may take.”

Oregon and Washington voters approved their versions of the Death with Dignity Act in 1994 and 2008 respectively. A Montana district court ruled on Dec. 5, 2008 that state residents have the legal right to physician-assisted suicide. The Montana Supreme Court affirmed on Dec. 31, 2009 that physician-assted suicide is “not against public policy.”


Peter J. Cataldo, “Massachusetts Death with Dignity Act: Framing the Issue,”, Feb. 17, 2012

“Death with Dignity Ballot Question Advances with Overwhelming Voter Support; Over 86,000 Certified Signatures Submitted,”, Dec. 7, 2011

Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General, “Initiative Petition Summary,” (accessed Feb. 28, 2012)

Zachary T. Sampson, “Church Braces to Fight Doctor-Aided Suicide,”, Feb. 11, 2012

Peg Sandeen, “Death with Dignity Introduced in the Massachusetts State House,”, Jan. 20, 2012